We Believe; Help Our Unbelief

Last night was a weird combination of observances: Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine's Day. To commemorate the day, I purchased a half dozen Valentine's balloons and some sweet treats. Most of the treats were gone by the end of the night. Ultimately, I decided it was best to offer these outside of the worship space-- I liked the juxtaposition of Valentine's stuff in the hallway and a stark, simple altar table in the Celebration Center:

My plan for the service was to speak of God's love for all of us, specifically referring to the father and son in Mark 9:14-29. This was the theme text of the first lesson in our excellent small group study going on at Grace right now, Embracing the Uncertain (yes, there are still copies available in the office if you'd like one). The grief and desperation of the father in the story was very close to my own heart as I heard the news of another mass school shooting, this time near Miami. He pleas with Jesus: "If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!"

Jesus is incredulous: "What do you mean 'if'? Anything is possible for those who believe." The father responds: "I believe; help my unbelief." His grief, his desperation is blocking him from fully living as a faithful person. The pain of his son is too real. We're all feeling that pain today. I have written before on my blog about a faithful response to school shootings and I have advocated for eliminating the AR-15, the weapon used by the shooter yesterday. You can read those if you like-- I will not rehash the arguments here, although my feelings have not changed.

I keep returning to the emotion of the father in the story. I return as a Christian, a pastor, a father of sons myself. Seeking some solace, I looked for prayers for victims of violence in our United Methodist Book of Worship. I was directed by that resource to this scripture:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:28-31).

Then my mind turned to this hymn:

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

1 Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
and long for heaven and home,
when Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is he:
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me;
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, (I’m happy)
I sing because I’m free, (I’m free)
for his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

2 “Let not your heart be troubled,”
his tender word I hear, 
and resting on his goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
though by the path he leadeth
but one step I may see:
his eye is on the sparrow, 
and I know he watches me;
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me. [Refrain]

3 Whenever I am tempted,
whenever clouds arise,
when song gives place to sighing,
when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to him;
from care he sets me free:
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me;
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me. [Refrain]

We are all going to die someday. On Ash Wednesday, we confront our anxiety with death, coming face to face with mortality. Like the father in the story. I placed the sign of the cross on nearly 100 foreheads last night, saying the words, "Remember you came from ashes, and to ashes you shall return. Repent of your sin and be faithful to Christ." The reality of death should never make us immune to the suffering of others; we know from scripture that God's heart breaks at human violence. Join me in praying for the comfort of those who grieve, the courage to act on behalf of the innocent, and an end to the madness of violence.

A Prayer for Victims of Violence
Lord God of liberation,
you saw your people as slaves in Egypt
and delivered them from captivity,
you see works of violence and weep.
Relieve the suffering of the students, staff, and parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Grant them peace of mind and a renewed faith in your protection and care.
Protect us all from the violence of others,
keep us safe from the weapons of hate,
and restore us to tranquility and peace.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen